02/23/2011 04:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Accidental Mentor

At age nine my twin sister Heidi and I lived with our single mother near the 59th Street Bridge, and I remember seeing a homeless man lying in the street. I thought he was insane or too lazy to get a job. After all, my mother kept it together by working nights as a nurse, leaving Heidi and me alone all night without a babysitter, and during the day she walked with us to our violin and flute lessons. But one day something inside Mother cracked, she lost her job, the bills piled up, the rent was months overdue, and soon we too were on the streets and homeless.

"You want one last look?" the city marshal asked on the day of the court-ordered evacuation. I shook my head no and carried what I could in my arms. Mother followed with Heidi, and we watched the marshal place our furniture on the street and padlock our door. 1073 First Avenue was no longer my home, and I didn't want to remember it as a vacant three-room railroad flat with a bathtub in the kitchen.

I never said goodbye to our neighbors eating in the pizza parlor downstairs. Instead I hid my face with a scarf and gripped my lifelong treasures: a diary and some dolls. When we arrived at the shelter, Mother unpacked a few sweaters and our overalls from a big black garbage bag. It was all we had. The room's ceiling was cracked, the walls were painted gray, and there were over a dozen cots. Families shared a room and had partitions for privacy. In the morning some families left and others lined up in the dining area for a free foot-long block of government cheese.

"We're leaving soon for school," a girl around our age said.

"We go to school on the Upper East Side. It's private," I said lying through my orange-stained teeth from drinking three cups of Tang. I thought the girl might turn us in to social services for being truant and like Mother had said, we'd be taken away from each other and put into an orphanage. The truth was Mother had pulled us out of grade school years before and was attempting to Christian home-school us. She said teachers were indoctrinating the youth about Darwinism and the One World Order.

A week later, we met a couple in a grocery store who let us sleep on their couch, and when Mother's moods took over, my family was asked to leave, and we found another stranger's bed to sleep on. Heidi and I convinced ourselves that we were not like the homeless whom we napped next to on the subway. We were on an adventure and spent most our afternoons on Fifth Avenue playing duets on violin and flute for money. At Christmas time I decorated my violin case with tinsel and met a single mother named Martha. She lived in the projects off 10th Avenue, worked at the A&P supermarket, and invited us to celebrate the holidays with her family. Our visit turned into a few weeks.

During the day, Mother left Martha's apartment in search of a home. A babysitter named Jill arrived to watch Martha's young children. Heidi curled up in the corner with a book and growled at me whenever I interrupted her to play dress-up. After a while Martha's kids got bored of sharing their toys with me and the small apartment felt cramped. I wasn't wanted. So I locked myself in the bathroom and sang "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" from the Broadway musical "Annie." I convinced myself that I was just like the plucky orphan and soon Daddy Warbucks would find me. But he never came knocking; instead Jill tapped lightly and said, "You have the voice of an angel. You must come out and sing to us!"

I was mortified. I didn't want attention. I was the homeless, home-schooled, half-blood busker of Hell's Kitchen. But Jill was persistent, and before I knew it I went from performing in the living room to the local community center. Jill gave me a standing ovation, and when the audience applauded, my confidence soared. I realized I wasn't just a little girl lost on the streets, shuffling along with Mother and my twin sister; I was going to make it. And all because someone believed in me.

After one year of being homeless, welfare found us an apartment in Hell's Kitchen that was infested with mice and roaches. But we didn't care. We had a home and a friend we could count on.

Twenty years later, I graduated from college, and at a party Jill introduced me to a man I fell madly in love with. Within a couple of years we married and recently became parents of a baby girl we named Daisy. I like to think of Jill as the accidental mentor. She wasn't a big CEO of a company, didn't have experience as a life coach, and certainly had her hard times when she landed on welfare, but she was always smiling, telling me not to be afraid, that I could do anything I put my mind too, and that there were great things ahead for me. Jill showed me that by losing everything, my home and at times my mother, I was given an opportunity to discover my true essence, be responsible for my own happiness, and that every day presents another chance to make something of my life.